Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the people’s Assembly;
My Syrian sisters and brothers,
I address you at this critical stage of the history of Syria and the region, with the events that you have experienced with your feelings and ardor for your homeland. You prove time and time again your faithfulness, loyalty and concern for the protection of its pride and dignity.
I wanted to meet you today, under these conditions, in order to give you a review of recent developments and your country’s position towards them, and in order to provide answers to the many questions you have in mind as part of the close and transparent relationship between us. I mean to stress a basic fact: that everything we do, and all the positions we take are inspired by you.
Syria has lived for the past two years at the heart of a number of interwoven and complicated events and developments on the regional and international levels which accelerated in a stormy manner. We had to deal with them with a great deal of care and concern.
The acceleration of these events has imposed a complicated reality of reactions, opinions and viewpoints amidst a number of sections of those concerned with the political situation. On a parallel line, there is an intense media campaign which has caused great confusion among the local and Arab public opinion and raised a number of questions about the nature of the challenges facing us and our position towards them.
The most prominent issues that have preoccupied the world, become part of the plans of great powers and shaped their political objectives, go through Syria, directly or indirectly, whether it is the Middle East peace process, terrorism, the question of Iraq or the ramifications of the situation in Lebanon.
I presented, on different occasions, a detailed explanation of our positions and our vision of these interwoven issues. That is why I am not going to review what happened, the meaning and significance of these events; but I will stop at the most recent developments and explain our position and our vision for the future of these developments, so that our people is well informed and aware of the efforts we have made in order to achieve satisfactory results.
Within this framework, we can stress that our political approach towards these developments is based on two pillars: the first is the protection of national and pan-Arab interests through adherence to our identity, independence, loyalty to our principles and beliefs, providing the appropriate conditions for the protection of our political and social stability, as part of the stability of the whole region, and also enhancing all the above factors in order to regain our occupied lands.
The second pillar is our concern, within this framework, for achieving the objectives I have stated and dealing with the concerned parties with an open mind, without any preconceptions and with a great deal of realism, flexibility and responsibility, realizing the nature of the international conditions in recent years and the equation between the possible and the desirable; namely adherence to our rights and at the same time dealing realistically with emergent challenges and developments.
The issue of peace was at the heart of these events and cast shadows over other issues. This process receded, in its general atmosphere, many steps backward, not only because of Israeli intransigence and its rejection to respond to the requirement of peace, but also because of the lack of international responsibility, when Israel is concerned, for the implementation of international resolutions, and the lack of seriousness on the part of the international community in shouldering its responsibilities in this concern.
As far as we are concerned, we have stressed on many occasions that peace in our region will not be achieved until we restore our occupied land; and that many of the problems that have appeared recently find their solution in providing the opportunities for just peace, which removes the causes of tension, conflict, frustration and disappointment.
Syria has proposed the resumption of negotiations without preconditions. But we stress at the same time that the absence of these conditions doesn’t mean discarding the frames of reference, the rules and resolutions which have to be met and implemented. Our frame of reference is that of Madrid which includes resolutions of the international legitimacy. It was not surprising for us that Israel rejected the resumption of negotiations, and has put condition under deferent pretexts to escape and avoid the requirements of peace. We simply think that the peace process needs requirements: first of all, the will of the parties to achieve peace, second to have an honest sponsor, and third technical requirements like negotiations, terms of reference and standards. What is lacking today is the will of the Israelis; the will of the sponsor, the United States, and also the standards and criteria. So the peace process is stalled for the foreseeable future. But until that time we should not stop talking about the peace process. That is why we continue dialogue with our European friends and other concerned parties, in order to identify the mistakes of the past and in order to draw a vision for the future. And when all these conditions change we proceed forward with the peace process.
Of course Israel has been proposing that we should go back to the negotiations without any preconditions. Many of the delegations that visited Syria asked about the Syrian conditions. When we say we don’t have any conditions they are usually surprised. They say that Israel claims you have preconditions. Israel’s objective is to give the impression that it is prepared for peace but the problem is the conditions put by Syria. In actual fact Israel puts the condition of going back to square one. We talked about resuming negotiations from the point they had stopped. They want to go back to square one. We tell our international visitors: you want to achieve peace and at the same time you ask as to disagree about what we have already agreed on!
This means lack of seriousness and lack of credibility, because every Israeli government comes and says that they are not responsible for what the previous Israeli government approved. We stress that we are prepared for negotiations without any preconditions in accordance with the Madrid terms of reference. In other words, we resume from the point we stopped at in the early 1990s.
As far as the Palestinian question is concerned, we stress the importance of national unity through enabling the Palestinians to regain their national rights within a comprehensive solution.
Concerning Iraq, our position has always been based on consideration and appreciation of our national interests and the interests of the Iraqi people. We opposed the war, like many others in the Arab region and in the world at large. We have our pan-Arab and strategic reasons. We thought that the war would lead to a state of chaos and confusion, not only in Iraq but in the whole region. We knew that the war’s negative impacts will affect us politically, economically and socially. The stability of Iraq and the region was at the heart of our concern and preoccupation. That is why we expressed our keenness for national dialogue in Iraq; and we were among the first to call for elections on a national basis, without excluding any party. And here we have set a number of priorities: the first priority is the unity of Iraq, which is the most important thing for us, because it doesn't touch the Iraqis only, but it affects national and pan-Arab security, as far as Syria is concerned.
The second priority is elections, and to vote on a constitution which will produce institutions. Any constitution which is not unanimously approved by the Iraqis will lead to fragmentation and civil war in Iraq. The second point is closely related to the first, and so unity needs stability. So, we need national unity and a constitution which is approved unanimously by the Iraqis.
The third priority is independence. This automatically means withdrawal of the American troops. The strange thing is that all the American delegations we received talked about these three priorities. So we asked them where are the differences you talk about then? We oppose occupation as a matter of principle, but the mechanism should be discussed with the Iraqis and not with others.
On the other hand, there are many accusations against Syria under different pretexts. One pretext is intervention in Iraqi affairs, another is not controlling the borders and enabling infiltrations to enter Iraq, a third is giving refuge to members of the former regime. Here also we have done everything within our capacity which could preserve the stability of Iraq: controlling the borders, not allowing the use of Syrian territories in order to interfere in Iraqi affairs, and supporting to the political process there. Before the war there were accusations that Syria used to send weapons to the regime in Iraq. We asked them at that time to provide just one piece of evidence. As far as we are concerned, its was against our law; and we were going to bring those responsible to account. They had not provided any information yet.
Three weeks after the war, I also talked to them and said that now you are in Baghdad, you have an embassy. Just give us one document to prove what you are saying. We have not received any.
At that time the resistance had not started yet. They started talking about Syria controlling its borders. We said that was impossible. In the 1980s, the Iraqi regime used to send us lorries loaded with explosives in order to go off in Damascus killing thousands of people; and we could not control our borders at that time. How can we prevent individuals infiltrating the borders, specially that we don't have the high technology necessary for that job. Later on William Burns came and heard the same thing. Afterwards there was a long pause, with the exception of US Congress delegations. But we met a number of Iraqi delegations representing the Governing Council, and later the Interim Government. We said to them, you say that you caught a umber of Syrians or people who infiltrated from Syria. Why don't you give us their names or passports? Are they fake or real passports? How did they pass? What kind of logistic support have they received; or whether they were given money or food or any logistic support of any kind. They usually promised to do that; but so far we have not received any information about any Syrians infiltrating the borders . Of course we don't claim that the borders are completely controlled. Usually the Americans say they could not control their borders with Mexico; Yet, they tell us to control our borders. It is a strange argument. The last delegation we received was headed by William Burns last September. The delegation comprised people from the US Ministry of Defense, the State Department, Intelligence, and the Army. They talked with us clearly. They said they wanted to know whether Syria had the will to cooperate. We told them that since 1974, when the relations with the United States were resumed - you remember Nixon's visit in 1974 - President Hafez al-Assad told him that we want the best relations with the United States. That was after the 1973 war and all the conditions were different. And so it is not reasonable to say we don't want good relations. Concerning cooperation, we have to distinguish our desire for cooperation and our capacity to cooperate. Having the desire does not mean that we have the capabilities. Nevertheless, we do not want to put the scenarios, we leave it to you. Just draw the scenarios that you want. A few months ago, the Iraqi Interior Minister came to Syria and told me that the Americans want a tripartite agreement for security arrangements between Syria, Iraq and the American forces. We said that we are ready. Of course they proposed this in a meeting, and we said we are ready. Many of them didn't want us to say yes, they wanted us to say no. We said we are ready. We asked them to send us the details and to send us their scenarios: the details and the concerned individuals to meet different institutions, the security and army people, in order to have an executive plan. So far we have not received any of these people, but from time to time, they send us lists of names. Most of these names are unknown to us. Some of them were in Syria but were expelled during the war. There were individuals who came to Syria as members of the regime. Of course we don't regret handing them over because they were responsible for crimes perpetrated in Syria in the 1980s or 1990s. They were either expelled or they were caught at the borders and were asked to go back. For the rest of the names, we don't know how they look like, we don’t know anything about them. In Iraq, there is chaos now. Some of them might be in Syria under false names. We need more information. As you see, the media campaign is non-stop. We have not put any conditions for this cooperation as I said. Our concern in Iraq is unity and stability, but we have to wait.
My brothers and sisters, there is no doubt that the Lebanese situation, with its complications, is the most prominent and pressing event at this stage. I am not going to discuss the past; neither am I going into details of the events which were witnessed in Lebanon or the Syrian-Lebanese relations. But I’ll stop at the consequences of resolution 1559 and our position towards that resolution.
Since the resolution was passed, the Lebanese arena has witnessed a strong debate because it created, even among its supporters, serious problems in terms of the potential negative impact of its implementation on Lebanon and its stability in the absence of an appropriate mechanism for its implementation. This becomes possible if it does not take into account the objective conditions for implementation. Despite our reservations on resolution 1559 – that it provides for the intervention of international parties under the pretext of Lebanese sovereignty - our decision was to deal with it in a positive manner in light of our care and concern for the unity and stability of Lebanon.
Here, I would like to shed some light on a number of points on how we take a certain decision. Most of you read the interview given by the American President to a French daily in which he says that the French President asked him to prepare a draft resolution to get Syria out of Lebanon. So, there is no connection between the resolution and the extension of President Lahoud’s term of office. We have discovered in the past few months that there are certain implicit and explicit provisions in resolution 1559. They were prepared immediately after the war on Iraq. I am not talking about the idea of the resolution but about some of the contents and provision of the resolution; and I will discuss that later.
The second point, as I said, is that when the resolution was passed it was passed in violation of the UN Charter; and it was selective. It was not upon the request of the concerned countries. But since we live in a world without a law or justice, to talk about this is a waste of time. The third point is that one of the basics of Syrian policy is its support for the United Nations. And Syria cannot, under any circumstances, oppose or confront the Untied Nations. The fourth point, as far as 1559 is concerned, among all its provisions, the one related to Syria is withdrawal. Contrary to the what many people believe, this is the simplest provision; because Syria is not against withdrawal. We started withdrawing in 2000. So when we talk about withdrawal, does any one in Syria say that we will remain in Lebanon? Of course not. So, this is the simplest provisions. The other provisions are problematic, as far as Lebanon is concerned. This will bring us back to the 1980s or even before. The fifth point is the report. I think in April we should be able to see where this resolution will go. We cannot say that this resolution is negative or positive. If it takes into account the objective conditions of its implementation, then it is positive. If it does not take these conditions into accounts, it will be a problem for Lebanon and for the whole region.
The main two points in this report are related to the mechanism of withdrawal and to the Lebanese resistance. The sixth point, Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon does not mean the end of the Syrian role; because this role is defined by geographical and political factors. On the contrary, we will be free and open in dealing with Lebanon. The seventh point is what I said in an interview with a French television. When I was asked about Syrian forces in Lebanon, I said clearly that the normal position of Syrian troops is on Syrian territories. These are the principles. And I am stressing them because there are so many distortion nowadays. I wanted to say this clearly so everyone will hear what I am saying, especially those who doubt our intentions. We should not remain in Lebanon one day after there is a Lebanese consensus over our presence. This should not be a subject of discussion. Syria went to Lebanon in order to prevent division, not to cause division among the Lebanese.
A final point, withdrawal does not harm Syria's interests. On the contrary, it strengthens Syria's interests. That is why we started withdrawing five years ago. We have withdrawn over 64 percent of the forces; and this is something many Syrians don't know. The number of forces was 40,000; and now we have only 14,000. Of course this is not mentioned because; and many don't mention that intentionally. They want to show that Syria is withdrawing under pressure.
Now I'll talk abut meetings with Larsen and other officials who visited Syria recently. They used to ask how are you going to deal with resolution 1559. We have always had a clear answer: we are going to deal with it positively despite our reservations. And we used to explain to them how Syria has started to withdraw in 1999. After the war was over, and it became clear that the army became stronger and Lebanese institutions became stronger, we started to think that withdrawal from Lebanon has become a necessity. We put plans and then we started withdrawal either in late 1999 or early 2000.
That is what I explained to the delegates and envoys I received. You know we carried out four withdrawals before 1559 was passed. The fifth withdrawal was last September. The main thing is that these withdrawals ensured stability in Lebanon. That is why we told them that we don't have a problem with 1559; and we don't think it is against our interests. It is about withdrawal; and al-Taif accord, to which Syria is committed and has always supported, provides for withdrawal. Thus, we don't have a problem with the United Nations regarding 1559. So, in principle we don't have any problem. The important thing is the mechanism. The difference between 1559 and al-Taif accord is that al-Taif accord has a mechanism while 1559 does not provide for a mechanism. They only said withdrawal and every state in the world is interpreting it as it wishes. Perhaps, some people think it should have a retroactive effect, to pre-date 1974 perhaps.
So, we believe in systematic and gradual withdrawal in cooperation and coordination with Lebanese institutions. A few people believe that it should happen immediately, regardless of any negative impact, and without shouldering any responsibility. We say, you are the United Nations, you should state that clearly. You have not stated that. Of course, they all want stability; and you call for coordination. Of course the atmosphere was very positive in this dialogue. They have a vision close to ours. And they wanted to find a link between the al-Taif Accord and 1559. We told them that the important point is the report. It should not be drafted according to the mood of certain people in the world; otherwise we would be wasting our time. But if we assume that the report will be based on the resolution without any moody interpretations, we give three answers to three questions. The first question: how will you find common grounds between 1559 and stability in Lebanon? The answer comes through the mechanism. The second question: how can you find common grounds between 1559 and sovereignty? We understand that the resolution was passed for the sake of Lebanese sovereignty; and sovereignty is usually represented by the state. So, what if the state asks the United Nations for something? Will you be committed to that? And how do you interpret sovereignty? Who would define that? The third question: can you find common grounds between 1559 and al-Taif Accord? The Taif accord is mentioned in the resolution; and it is also recognized by the United Nations. If we find objective answers for this question, the resolution provides stability for Lebanon and the whole region. We should not look at the resolution as a pure evil. So it is in the gray area now; and it depends on how it is used. Larsen will come back to Syria in few days, or ten days perhaps. So, we will continue dialogue. Larsen talked positively about al-Taif accord and about the cooperation agreement between Syria and Lebanon. Escalation started immediately after that in order to point to the failure of the Larsen mission and other envoys who visited Syria. Other European envoys were also given the same impression . Our Arab brother made moves through visits and communications; and also the wrong impression was given: that Syria is confused as far as withdrawal is concerned.
Consequently, we asked them about their vision. Some people talked shyly about al-Taif accord. We told them go and say on my behalf that we support al-Taif accord. We support 1559; and we supported withdrawal a long time ago. We don't have a problem with that. We have an interest in withdrawal. If we go back to 1999 and early 2000, we have an interest that our forces finished their mission and they remained in order to ensure security. And the last bullet was fired after Beirut was unified. Ten years later, when the forces remained without anything to do, of course their readiness would decline, and they would not do their job properly. They would become a financial liability, a political liability. This is natural and normal in any country in the world. I intentionally postponed my speech in order to monitor what the Syrian people want. I see a consensus on this issue.
As I said we have an interest in the withdrawal. And regarding the latest developments, some people in the media talked about the cards that Syria has in the face of the United Nations. I haven't heard at any moment in time that Syria wanted to have cards against the UN. And I believe that even the superpowers can't do that. The situation in Iraq is a clear example: even when a superpower goes against the international will, it suffers. In the past few days we had meetings with Arab officials. The media said they put pressure on Syria and convinced Syria. I need to explain that. When the UN envoy, Terj Roed Larsen, came twice to Syria, once late last year and once last month, we told him that we will cooperate with you: when you have a clear vision we are prepared to withdraw. When we meet Arab officials, we explain our viewpoint to them, that we are not against al-Taif Accord, and we are not against UN resolution 1559 at all. The Arab officials showed understanding and they supported us. The situation is not as it is portrayed in the mass media, that we begged them for support. 1559 is already past; so they can't bring the clock backwards. The problem is not withdrawal, it is concerned with resistance on the Lebanese level; and it will create a problem if it is not dealt with reasonably in the report. There is a hidden provision not in 1559, but in the uses of 1559; and it is settling Palestinian refuges in Lebanon. We found that there was a momentum for the Palestinian track. The assassination of Arafat, the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, pressure on Iraq, pressure on Syria, all that creates a scene that I am sure you can understand.
The atrocious crime which claimed the life of prime Minister Hariri targeted Lebanon's stability and unity; and it also targeted the role and position of Syria in Lebanon and the whole region. That is why we stress that finding the culprits and those who stand behind them is a Syrian necessity in as much as it is Lebanese necessity. This crime came to increase the escalation, either under the influence of the shock caused by the calamity, or according to a preconceived and suspect plan, or because of bad faith. They used to this crime to inflame hostile feelings against Syria and to escalate accusations against it. Of course, in any crime there are a number of factors, only in this one there is only one factor, Syria. It is strange.
Some international parties started to work unjustifiably, on first sight, with coordination and incitement in one direction; and they started to throw arrows of betrayal and treachery towards Syria which hasn't withheld its capabilities and even its blood in support of some of those people.
But Syria will be greater than caring or responding to these machinations. Of course this doesn't mean that all our acts in Lebanon were correct. We have to acknowledge clearly and transparently that there have been mistakes made on the Lebanese arena, because we went along with certain details and went too far with some Lebanese at the expense of others. We believed that dealing with the status quo enhances the Syria role in helping Lebanon to achieve stability. But the reality was not like that. Of course some people have exploited the presence of Syrian forces for narrow material or electoral reasons which led to a number of negative accumulations. We should not of course deny the role of those loyal Lebanese brethren with whom we stood in one trench in the face of enemies of Lebanon and Syria, and worked together for the good of Lebanon and Syria. The Taif accord was concluded in 1989, and all different parties and militias accepted it. Some people were convinced that the state is a natural resort for the Lebanese. Some were not convinced, but they could not face the changes in those days. They got integrated in the state believing that the state can become the largest militia which can be divided among others according to political and material benefits.
As far as we in Syria are concerned, after al-Taif and after the unification of Beirut, the priority was peace. The second priority was launching the political process, particularly the parliamentary elections in 1992. As I said, we tried to get along with all parties and we wanted all parties to be with the state, particularly after the war. It was the state of militias, as some people said, but that continued for longer than necessary, and the name of Syria was used by some people for their own reasons. Some called themselves Syria's allies and used their relationship with Syria in order to achieve their private interests. Some Lebanese used to call them political traders. Of course trading is products is a respected trade but trading in politics is like slave trade. They were political traders. They used to sell and buy positions; and they moved from one position to another; and most of them are well known to you. We took a decision towards a Lebanese state. The problem started with those people who started talking about sovereignty. Of Course talking about sovereignty is honorable for every one. And we fully support every Lebanese who talks about sovereignty. But we want to know the nature of this sovereignty. We discovered it is not the sovereignty of the Lebanese; it is rather the sovereignty of any country, except Syria, over Lebanon.
That is why, as you can see, when any foreign official comes to Lebanon and stands in an official or in an unofficial place and makes statements about their internal affairs, they are happy; but when we say anything in Syria we become against sovereignty and against independence. But we know of course that those forces are part of the Lebanese history. They had been there for over two hundred years. There are those who extended their hands to outside forces; and there are patriotic forces. But the other forces failed with the Baghdad Pact; they failed to destroy the Lebanese resistance; and they failed with the 17th of May agreement with Israel. They know that we will always stand with these patriotic parties. This makes me stress two main facts. The first fact, which I have already stressed several times, that we don’t have any interest in Lebanon when the bazaar of cheap calculations and narrow interests is open. And if we have any interest, it is of national and strategic nature, related to the national security of Syria and Lebanon. We carried with our brethren the burden of this relationship in light of our vision and our commitment to unity of our fate. As far as the presence of Syria forces in Lebanon is concerned, we shoulder this responsibility on our own. The second fact is that Syria's power and its role in Lebanon do not depend on its presence in Lebanon, because this strength has to do with the facts of geography, history, politics, culture, spiritualism and humanity.
That is why we don’t want our relationship with Lebanon to be victim of the mistakes of others, mainly politicians. Syrian citizens have been throughout the past decades the major supporters of the Syrian role in Lebanon. The Lebanese and Syrian citizens built this pure relationship without any temporal interests. I want to say to all Syrian citizens who have feelings of frustration and disappointment towards treachery, betrayal and lack of loyalty towards what Syria offered to Lebanon: this is not the general case in Lebanon. This represents a number of groups we know fully well and those who stand behind them. Notice how TV cameras usually zoom in onto a small group of people, but if they zoom out, you will discover there are not so many people supporting them.
Please, we should not pay attention to reactions that appeared at certain moments, most of which is pre-planned and mediated. The heart of Syria that gave Lebanon blood can’t be harmed by certain wrong doings. We, the Syrians would continue to give Lebanon because you are the grand children of the Syrian Arabs.
Based on these facts and considerations, completing the steps which we have conducted within the framework of al-Taif accord, and in line with 1559, we are going to withdraw our forces in Lebanon completely to the Bekaa valley, and then to the Lebanese-Syrian borders. I agreed with the Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud that the Syrian Lebanese Supreme Council will meet this week to discuss and approve the withdrawal plan. When this measure is finished, Syria would have met the al-Taif accord and implemented the requirements of 1559.
All that doesn’t mean that Syria has neglected its responsibility towards our Lebanese brethren with whom we have a unity of objective and have been together in the crucial times of our history. Syria will remain their supporter at all times, and the battles of honor that we have fought together will remain a symbol of solidarity between the two peoples, and this will be enhanced in the future, God willing .
I’ll tell them that another 17th of May is looming on the horizon. I want you to be prepared to bring it down as you did before.
My sisters and brothers,
Through this information and these ideas, I wanted to explain to you what we have done in the past days, and to explain the reality towards current issues, particularly to those who believe that we deal with developments with intransigence, or that we lack sufficient flexibility. In fact our policy is based on cooperation with others whether they are super powers or small countries on the basis of friendship and mutual respect. Objective dialogue can solve all existing problems. All that doesn’t mean that you will feel safe soon. Of course you will hear attacks on this speech immediately after I finish.
That is why before they say it is not sufficient, we will tell them it is not sufficient.
(Interruption from the audience: We will tell them that we sacrifice our souls and blood for you President Bashar.)
That is why, in taking such decisions, and under any condition, we base them on popular support; and when we are unified, the people and the state, we do not fear anything. As you notice, its natural that these events affect the internal situation; and they put pressure on our developmental performance. It is not only because we are preoccupied with these developments, but because of the tension they create in the general atmosphere. This obstructs what we want to do on different levels. The question is how to face this. I say, through more openness and through our preoccupation with these developments. This will not prevent me from following up the detailed internal situation because it is my top priority.
On such a crucial moment, I didn’t want to talk about the internal situation. But since I’ll make a few sentences, we are preparing for a regional conference of al-Baath Party; and hope this will be a leap for development in this country.
Brothers and sisters,
Syria has its role and has its priorities in its Arab environment and regional environment. This makes some people happy and some people not so happy.
Syria’s role will remain and will be strengthened more and more with the will of God and the will of our people. Our first objective will be protecting this role; the second strengthening it and the third developing it.
Thank you very much